Diving into Vintage — A Panel of Pros Instructs How

Whether you’re a neophyte vintage shopper just dangling your toes in the pool or a seasoned pro swimming merrily in the deep end, the panel discussion I attended yesterday at the Javits Center’s Vintage @ Intermezzo (Jan.7-9) had something to get you in the water. Led by Fashion Unfiltered’s Katherine Zarella, panelists included Bridgette Morphew of Morphew Vintage, Cameron Silver, founder of L.A.’s famed vintage boutique Decades and fashion director of H by Halston, and David Casavant, stylist and collector. As someone who’s relatively new to collecting vintage, I thought I’d go and soak up some knowledge as well as check out the select group of vintage sellers.

Vintage @ Intermezzo display

.”How do we view and consume vintage differently than we did 20 years ago?” asked Zarella. All panelists agreed that the internet has created a more knowledgeable customer as well as more accessibility to vintage fashion however Silver feels that vintage should be experienced firsthand. Years ago “vintage was inaccessible and for ‘poor people,'” he said, however times have changed. “How do we keep that sense of discovery one experiences in a brick and mortar store? We don’t want to lose the mystery of surprising the customer. Vintage is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I miss the old days — making myself seem vintage.As the name Decades suggests, clothing items featured include those from the ’30’s right up to what he terms “Neovintage” — clothing from 10-15 years ago, all mixed together.

Vintage is often used for designer inspiration with houses like Morphew supplying a showroom for browsing and buying. “Designers use vintage for production to show or communicate an idea. They use it for shapes, pattern making and even for prints of fabrics from the past. Sometimes they’ll even pull full Pantone colors from a dress,” she explained. “Vintage is the opposite of fast fashion with silhouettes coming from the ’50s seen at the Golden Globes Dior-style. The old used to inspire the new.” Casavant said that “it’s less the idea that it’s vintage and more that it’s mixing — if you’re young vintage doesn’t feel old if you’ve never seen it before.” He also thinks that there’s less of a stigma in attributing design inspiration and referencing older things than there used to be. Silver agreed: “If you’re a 16-year-old, then that 3-4 year old Stella piece is one-quarter of your life. To them it’s just great sh*t!” I am left wondering how many 16-year-olds frequent/ purchase anything at his high-end store? As far as designers buying items for creativity it happens less often now. “Buyers used to have a big budget. Now they just show a tear sheet instead of the actual garment,” he added.

According to Silver, you create value with vintage as quality matters as opposed to disposable fast fashion and (shudder) Rent the Runway — which he names as “two of the biggest threats to our business but we can all live together. People need to own their glorious memories (rather than just renting them or throwing them away). At Decades we have things from happy moments in a person’s life.” He later told a story about recently widowed “Maria” who consigned the black Chantilly lace dress that she met her husband in. “It sold to Tom Ford and he redid it for Gucci. Perhaps someone met their husband or their husband for a night in that dress,” he quipped.”Vintage reminds people what it’s like to have a visceral connection to clothing.”

What of the celebrity on the red carpet? “What inspires celebs to wear vintage?” asked Zarella. Who better to answer than Decades owner Silver whose store was pretty much ground zero for dressing Hollywood award show attendees. “Celebrities used to buy clothing but it’s much more difficult now. Their ability to get everything for free has infiltrated purchasing and really screwed up retail. Last night was a renewal of what the red carpet is about,” he said referring to Sunday night’s Globes. “It was an effortless, less commercialized version. People wanted to own and look like themselves the way it used to be. It was about artists not show ponies. Zoe Kravitz was flawless, Viola Davis had a ’70s moment, Sarah Jessica Parker had a ’50s moment — all vintage inspired and iconic. Back in the day people like Nan Kempner and CZ Guest wore clothes over and over again. It’s ok to repeat, to be simple and style yourself. We’ve had 15 years of cupcake dressing — this was a moment of timeless, effortless elegance.”

When it comes to luxury fashion how do you know what to buy to have it increase in value? Silver recommends buying those pieces that “got away” which you’ll sometimes see at Woodbury Commons. “If you see something that was on the runway at 70% off, buy it — as long as it’s not butt ugly.” Casavant recommends buying samples from shows that weren’t produced or were one of a kind or one of a few. “Buy things that speak to you. Stick to your instincts and your viewpoint.”

Any advice for first time vintage buyers? Casavant says just do it. “The more you buy the more you get informed. Don’t over think it,” he cautions. “I bought a lot overpriced and a lot under priced — it all works out in the end so don’t get too bogged down. When buying for her showroom Morphew looks for originality. “If it’s something I haven’t seen before or haven’t seen often I’ll buy it. I’m always looking for thing that I don’t normally see.” Guidelines for the vintage newbie according to Silver: “If you love it and can afford it and it’s in good condition, buy it.” He recalls his first vintage purchase in 1987 of a tuxedo with tails for $75 which he wore to his high school prom and eventually donated to LACMA along with his men’s archive. Other words of wisdom from Silver: “With vintage your tailor is more important than your therapist, your dry cleaner is more important than your lover.”

A word about vintage pricing and what determines it ended the discussion. According to Morphew when she buys something she considers not only the design and label but who is the customer. “My co-founder and I try to think of five different companies that would want it. It’s like the stock market with vintage. Sometimes it’s hot, sometimes it’s not.” Casavants wisely remarks that “the value is whatever someone would pay for it.” Silver points out that the customer is now so informed that they will spot something on 1st Dibs that they already own being offered at a ridiculous price so they think the piece that they own is worth that. “I tell them it’s been on for five years and it’s not going anywhere — there’s priced to sell or priced to dream.” Morphew chimed in that the pieces don’t just bring themselves to her showroom particularly on the occasion when a customer says they’ve seen an item for less somewhere in their travels. “I tell them buy it at Telluride. You pay for the curation of a product and for having it now.”

And with that I went off in search of my next vintage fix, awaiting the thrill of discovery of my newest old treasure.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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